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How Sleep And Dreams Help You Learn And Remember Better


In this article, you will learn about what happens when you sleep. Also, you will learn about why you dream and how sleeping proves very crucial to learning and memory. You will also discover how really essential getting a good night’s sleep can be for your health.

Pause and Think: “Why do we really need sleep?”

Imagine you’ve been up all night revising for an important test. Right now, the test questions are facing you with intimidating blank spaces for you to fill in your answers. All the questions seem familiar but you just feel too tired to think clearly. Towards the end of the test, you give up and scribble down a few things on your paper as you realize that you’re most likely not going to get a good grade in this test. Would you have performed better if you had just given yourself a good night’s rest?

What would happen if we didn’t sleep?

Sleep often feels like a perfect waste of time especially when we consider that we spend close to one-third of our lives sleeping. However, medical research has shown that the effects of consistently getting less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours sleep a night for adults and 9 to 10 hours sleep for adolescents are quite significant.


Many students sleep off during class as a result of not getting adequate sleep at night.

What Happened When a Teenager Stayed Awake for 11 Days

The world record holder for the longest period a human has intentionally gone without sleep not using stimulants of any kind is Randy Gardner. In 1965, Randy was still a 16-year old high school student and he stayed awake for 264 hours straight, which is about 11 days.

Gardner was able to beat Stanford University researcher, William Dement in a game of pinball on the tenth day of the experiment. But, all was still not well with him.

According to Claudia Aguirre in a TED-Ed video, after two days of zero sleep, Gardner’s eyes struggled to remain focused, he showed some signs of ataxia (an inability to repeat simple tongue twisters) and he found it difficult to identify objects based purely on touch.

By day three, he became moody and uncoordinated, and by day five he started hallucinating. From then on, he only mumbled a few words whenever he managed to speak, he had great trouble paying attention and forming short-term memories and his mental abilities diminished.


Photo Credit: Medical News Today

The Guinness Book of Records has stopped listing records for voluntary sleep deprivation in order to discourage further attempts. This is because the effects on Randy were very serious.

While Gardner was fortunate to have recovered from the experiment with no observed long-term physical and mental defects, the rest of us might not be so lucky.

Why Sleep is a Necessity and Not a Luxury?

Many of us, due to societal influence have unconsciously accepted the notion that sleep deprivation is the pathway to achievement. It’s true that most people might not be depriving themselves of sleep as extremely as Randy did in the experiment. However, many people are still losing sleep.

Sleep is not lost time or an elegant way to rest when all our important work is done. Instead, it is an important function during which your body balances and regulates its vital systems. This process affects respiration and regulates everything from circulation to growth and immune response.


Photo Credit: Travel.jumia.com

Sleep is also very crucial for your brain. In fact, as you drift off, one-fifth of your body’s circulatory blood is being channeled to your brain. A very active period of restructuring that is crucial for how our memory works goes on in the brain during sleep.

Memory consolidation is a process by which information is moved from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. This process is known to prevent memory loss. One of the major factors that contributes to memory consolidation is a good night’s sleep.

How the Different Stages of Sleep Help Us Learn

Sleep is composed of four stages and the different stages of sleep have been shown to help consolidate different types of memories. For instance, declarative memory, is encoded into a temporary store in the anterior part of the hippocampus during the non-REM slow-wave sleep. Declarative memory includes memory of facts you need to remember for a test.

As the cortex and hippocampus continually communicate during this stage of sleep, the memory is repeatedly reactivated to gradually redistribute it for long-term storage in the brain cortex.


A lot more than you think happens while you sleep. | Photo Credit: Nature

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is the stage where we experience really vivid dreams. This stage is associated with the consolidation of procedural memory. An example is the memory of the piano fingering steps and patterns of a musical piece you’re learning to play.

Finally, recent studies have discovered another major importance of sleep. This is the fact that sleep helps clear out all of the junk that accumulate as a result of our daily thinking.

During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically. This fluid washes away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours.


Photo Credit: The New York Times


Hopefully, you can see now that getting less sleep in an effort to manage your time harms your long-term health. Furthermore, with little sleep, it is less likely that you’ll retain all the knowledge from your night’s study.


Photo Credit: TED-Ed

The quality of your sleep directly affects the quality of your waking life. It affects your productivity, learning, creativity, emotional balance and physical vitality. In fact, no other activity delivers so many benefits with so little effort.

Happy Learning!


What do you think about the ideas shared in this article about the importance of sleep? Have you benefited in the past from sleeping adequately the night before a test or an examination? Share your thoughts below.

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